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Mon, Aug 07, 2006

'Commercial Builder's Assistance' Under Review

FAA Charters Panel To Discuss Changes To 14 CFR 21.191

News and Analysis by ANN Correspondent Mark Sletten

The FAA has decided to review the requirements of 14 CFR 21.191, the rules regarding amateur-built aircraft. According to FAA Order 1110.143, dated 07/26/2006, current guidance on the subject of amateur built aircraft has not kept pace with technology or the market. The order directs the formation of a committee to assess the current rules and, if necessary, recommend new ones.

You may remember last year's dustup between Aircraft Investor Resources (AIR) and the FAA when their first Epic LT customer was initially denied an experimental Airworthiness Certificate. The Epic LT is a complex, 6-pax, turbine-powered aircraft built of composite materials.

After requiring both AIR and their customer to provide additional documentation regarding the build process, the FAA did begrudgingly grant a certificate, but one has to wonder if that experience started the slow wheels of bureaucracy turning toward a recent look at the industry, at large…

The meat of 1110.143 charters the yet-to-be established committee to define commercial assistance within the strictures of the traditional 51% rule. Additionally, the committee will "identify and define the regulatory, directive, and policy changes needed for the FAA: to perform oversight of builder or commercial assistance; to convey to applicants their responsibilities when using builder or commercial assistance; and to convey to the providers of builder or commercial assistance their responsibilities to the applicant and the FAA."

The FAA will select the committee membership from "industry associations and/or organizations" with AIR-200, FAA manufacturing and engineering field representatives, AFS-800, AFS-300, EAA, and Kit Manufacturers specifically mentioned. As for public participation: Unless you are a committee member you must get permission to attend any meeting. Public comments to the committee must go through a committee member.

Why all the fuss? Frankly, some of today's kit aircraft are capable of remarkable performance, which can be had at a fraction of the cost for a comparable certified aircraft.

A fully-loaded Columbia 400SLX is slightly less than $600,000. A Lancair ES-P fast-build kit (an outwardly similar airframe to the certified Columbia) is $112,500; throw in another $200,000 for an engine and avionics, thousands of hours of sweat equity, and you can have Columbia performance for slightly more than half-price (not counting your labor) - pretty appealing for someone willing to work for it.

In the pre-Rutan era -- when the current rules were established -- carbon-fiber and glass-foam-glass construction techniques allowing complex, aerodynamic shapes (and those oh so sexy curves) were impossible. Mix modern construction with a turbine engine and one can bake up a fire-breathing, pressurized, 400 knot dragon that can easily carry 6 or more people -- at least that's the fantasy for some builders!

The reality is only the most knowledgeable and experienced of home builders possesses the requisite skills to complete this fantasy project. Realizing this -- and that many builders are frustrated with the length of the build process -- some kit manufacturers and commercial enterprises have obligingly offered "builder's assistance."

The strategy is that with assistance fantasies can be fulfilled; you'll get your kit completed in less time and always have an expert at hand to help when necessary.

All of this "helpfulness" begs the question: Can one complete a project of this scope without assistance? That, apparently, is what the Feds want to know.

While no specific accusations have been made, the fear seems to be that some "wanna-be" airplane manufacturer might try to "game the system." Specifically, a manufacturer without the means (or desire) to go through the aircraft certification process might circumvent it by marketing and selling an aircraft as a "kit" of such complexity that you must build it at the factory.

Obviously, this would not be in the best interest of public safety, and would unfairly disadvantage legitimate aircraft manufacturers that follow the rules -- not to mention jeopardizing a long-standing rule that allows one the freedom to build one's own aircraft.

FMI: www.faa.gov

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